Friday, April 30, 2010

In the Suez Canal

Today we are in the Suez Canal, moving so slowly it seems more like a controlled drift than anything else. I had assumed it was going to be romantic in a historical sort of way. Or at least interesting. But frankly it's just a man-made river that flows alongside some of the least interesting land I've seen. Perhaps its most unique feature is our ability to get really close to cargo ships loaded with containers heading in the other direction. So, let's give the Suez an A+ for its role in connecting the Mediterranean with Southern Asia, but a C- as a tourist thing.

We have been at sea for so many days since leaving Dubai that most of us were probably investing the Canal passage with a little more hype than it deserved. Many of our fellow passengers are starting to show the signs of people who have been confined with one another for waaaay too long. Some of us are getting snarly; many of us are getting a little goofy and I know of at least two guys who ran away when they saw the room attendant in the hallway with a broom.

Me - I'm fine. Like the trusty old retired fart that I am, I fall into a routine and I am quite happy so long as I can stick to it. So it's breakfast in the morning followed by reading or writing, followed by trivial pursuit, followed by a shower. I then fight against falling asleep because I don't want to become one of those people who naps at 10:30. And when I awaken around 11, I read or write or whatever until lunch at 1. After that it's poker for a couple of hours, and by the time that ends we're close enough to cocktail hour not to quibble about 20-or-so minutes.

Later in the evening, LK and I will go to dinner and usually go to the casino for a little blackjack or roulette.There's a team of seven people running the casino and I know them far too well at this stage. They're nice people and lots more relaxed than the staff you encounter at the big casinos. I am pretty sure it is made quite clear to them that on a cruise ship the casino is for the entertainment of the guests so they have to develop the fine art of making you enjoy losing your money.

Actually, thinking about last evening, maybe I am getting a bit stir-crazy, too. LK and I were playing blackjack with a nice young Romanian dealer named Elena. I suggested to her that part of the problem with casinos is that the dealers are far too serious and removed from the game. In fact they draw the most incredibly lucky hands to beat the players and they show no emotion - or often they even commiserate with the poor losers.

"It would be much more entertaining if we all got excited about the cards - including the dealers," I suggested to her. And then I discussed some ways to do it.

So I was not surprised a few hands later when LK and I both stood on 19 with Elena drawing to a 6. A face card and a 4 later, though, and her 20 was good enough to snatch our chips. In the past, Elena would have shaken her head slightly in sympathy for us unlucky losers. But after my training session, she reached across and took our chips and started chanting in a singsong voice, "I got 20 and you didn't. I got 20 and you didn't."

That's when I discovered that A) her manager can be stunned by some of the stuff that happens in the casino; and B) it wasn't any more fun to lose that way.

Time for trivia. Gotta go.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

At Sea: Captain Carl

Captain Carl, our ship's captain - excuse me, the master of our vessel - is a rockstar.

He is, I suspect, pretty good at his job. But, honestly, when we hop aboard a ship or an airplane, how are we able to judge whether the guy with the fancy white shirt is any good at what he does. Oh sure, there are extremes that give it away - driving a ship on a reef means you're not so good, landing a plane on the Hudson means you get to be the Rose Bowl Parade Marshal - but 99.9 percent of the time we have to trust that the head honcho got there because he was pretty competent and not because he's some flawed weasel who sucked up to the president of the company and married his ugly, autistic daughter.

But have no doubts about Captain Carl. This guy is good. Despite any reasonable way of judging whether Captain Carl is in the top ten percentile or seriously lagging, he has managed to make just about everyone aboard the ship feel they are fortunate to be sailing with him.

The captain is a young man. I can tell by looking at him, but just in case anyone missed it, he has told us all at least five times. For, you see, Captain Carl likes to talk about sailing and Captain Carl, and not necessarily in that order.

He is a fantastic communicator, sharing insights about the day's journey in great detail. If I could remember whether it's latitude or longitude that goes east-west, I would even be able to understand him. He has enthralled world-weary travellers by telling them how he's releasing the ropes when the ship leaves a dock. He went platinum when discussing the extra security measures in place to deal with the pirates (who forgot to show up).

But, of course, what he's communicating isn't our navigational trivia but the fact that we can all rest assured, have a pina colada for lunch and sleep in the sun because, by God, this young man knows what he's doing.

He's a bright man. That much seems obvious to me. And he is personable in the way that people who are the center of attention can be personable. That is, if you're paying attention to them.

But that's no worry for Captain Carl. The ship loves him. Every day we get a four-page newsletter with the day's activities, and there's always a paragraph and a picture on Page 2 with a little bio about the various crew members. (OK, about the various SENIOR crew members, not the people we actually deal with daily.) But the other day, the bio moved to page 1, the picture ran the length of the page, and the subject was - all together now - Captain Carl. I believe newsletter stands couldn't keep up with demand and the publishers are considering a second printing.

But that was just a foretaste of what was to come.

Several days ago the cruise director organized a morning session in the cabaret lounge. No singers, comedians, jugglers, dancers or magicians this time. Nope, this was the Captain Carl Show. For the first time on this cruise, the lounge was jammed, SRO, latecomers wait for the DVD.

The show's premise was pretty simple. The cruise director and Captain Carl sat on stools and the cruise director interviewed Captain Carl about - well, about Captain Carl. How did he get into the business? Does he love it? Is there anything he would like to tell us about himself? Does he mind it when the women over 60 start throwing their panties and room keys at him when he's on the bridge? The audience loved it.

Last night LK and I went up to the top deck. Captain Carl had turned off the deck lights so we could see the night sky, and he proceeded to use a laser beam to point out stars that are used in navigation. He then showed us a sextant, explained how to use it, explained that it wasn't necessary to use it because of an invention called GPS, explained that his apprentices were being forced to practice with it because otherwise they wouldn't remember how to use since it was no longer necessary, and explained that he was young and few his age knew how to plot a course with a sextant. Did he mention that he was young?

Anyhow, LK and I stayed until the inevitable questions. You know the kind, they happen everywhere. Not content to listen to the person everyone came to hear, at least five people need to say something so that we will notice them as well. As we were walking down the stairs, I am pretty sure the last question I heard was whether being young in any way interfered with his appreciation of older women.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

At Sea: Mrs Connecticut

There is a woman who occasionally sits with The Ladies. She's a semi-regular, more like an associate member than a card-carrying Lady.

She is a type of person who most probably did not exist 50 years ago - a 60-plus Connecticut matron with a fair whack of money in the bank who has tattoos on her ankle and upper arm. It is probably a given that she is a loudmouth and prone to forcing people to listen to her opinions. And it is probably no surprise to discover that being based on fact is not a requirement for those opinions.

Most of the opinions she expresses are political. And most of her political opinions would sound far-right at a Tea Party rally. All of which probably goes with being 60+ and from Connecticut with lots of money. I just cannot get over the tattoos. It's kind of like finding out that they're watching Fox News all day in the Ladies Lounge at a Hells Angels clubhouse.

I usually develop urgent business elsewhere when blowhards like this woman come along, but I stayed and listened one day and gradually came to realize that I have met her type all too often in our recent wanderings around the globe. I may be looking back on my childhood memories through rose-colored glasses, but it does seem to me that Americans are changing, and she seems to encapsulate so much of this change.

My (undoubtedly idealized) memory was that Americans used to be patriotic people, proud of their country and ready to share their love of country with the rest of the world. But Mrs Connecticut is just the opposite. She gladly tells anyone who will listen how bad the US is now, how it's going to the dogs, how its leaders are corrupt, incompetent, greedy and - in the case of the current president - not even American.

I know this is a fairly typical conversation in the US lately as many people from The Greatest Generation seem to have decided the whole effort was not worth it after all given that their country did not turn out the way they had imagined it would. But in my continuing naivete, I remain astonished that Americans with a good enough lifestyle to be able to jump on a cruise ship in Singapore and travel for the next 24 days will tell total strangers from other countries how lousy America is.

It seems to me a tough sell to the rest of the globe if, on the one hand, you say you're trying to make the world safe for democracy, but on the other hand, you don't think it's working very well where you come from. And I wonder what non-Americans think when Yanks laugh about having an Obama bobble-head doll they keep in their car. Some times I think the rest of the world has more respect for the American presidency than do most Americans.

In the 50s and 60s people from the US were accused of being The Ugly Americans when they went overseas, because they had little interest in local cultures and wanted everything they encountered to be as it was in the US since it was such a great place. Now they're becoming The Ugly Americans all over again, but this time because they seem to want to make sure that everyone knows what a lousy place the US is.

Of course, Mrs Connecticut and the many others on board like her aren't really trying to convince people from other countries about the merits or lack of them in the US. They are just so used to complaining and spouting back the debate points they've heard on TV that they don't even think about how other people are reacting. And in fact, you can tell that they aren't trying to convince anyone because they assume that everyone thinks the way they do, anyhow.

Inevitably their comments turn to purely American issues, and there doesn't seem to be the slightest hesitation in assuming that people in other countries give a crap. Mrs Connecticut is happy to tell everyone how health care will bankrupt the country, and she seems blithely unaware that everyone at the table is from a country with better government health care than the Obama plan and none of them have gone bankrupt because of it.

There is, of course, still a pretty good strain of the original Ugly American. You cannot get rid of that in just 50 years.

Perhaps the best example on this cruise was another Yank who complained bitterly about the stringent immigration policies that India has for people planning a visit. After his spew, LK quietly pointed out that America has far more stringent policies in place.

"Yes," he said, sounding as if he thought she were a bit of an idiot child, "but we were attacked by terrorists."

"That's true," said Linda, "but so was India. In fact it happened in the city we're visiting tomorrow."

I believe all he said was, "Oh."

Saturday, April 24, 2010

At Sea: The Pirates


It's time to get rid of all those images of Erroll Flynn and Johnny Depp aboard sailing vessels. The pirates we are watching out for today as we head to the Gulf of Aden are the nasty, motorized kidnappers who are working off the coast of Somalia.

From the earliest days of booking this cruise, I asked LK why she chose a trip that would take us up Pirate Alley. Her reply was that there wasn't much to worry about. It looks as if she's right, but that is in no small part due to the extraordinary precautions the ship and her owners are taking,

Starting last night and for at least the next three, we are blacking out the ship so no one scouting for prey can see us in the night. The interior of the ship is as bright as ever, with heavy curtains pulled. But the upper decks are eerie - with lights off and only some reflective light on the floorboards to let people avoid stubbing their toes. And of course our balconies are off limits until we've cleared the high-risk area.

The area isn't really all that high risk anymore. For one thing, numerous nations have brought naval vessels into the area to patrol for the pirates. Secondly, on the theory that there is safety in numbers, all the ships going from the Indian Ocean up to the Mediterranean are coordinating with one another and forming convoys based on their speed.

Frankly, a cruise ship makes for a lousy target for the pirates, who typically come alongside a target in small boats posing as fishing boats. They then must climb ladders to board. Their first challenge is that we are moving at 18 knots, which makes it very difficult to pull alongside and maintain any sort of stability. Second, to board our ship, you would have to climb to Deck 5, which is higher than most of their ladders can reach. Third, if they do try it, our crew are manning high-pressure hoses on Deck 5, which will make it even that more difficult.

And just in case that isn't enough, the Azamara owners have hired a gunboat to travel the waters as our private escort. They're being a bit reticent about this, but I believe it is a bunch of mercenaries who have formed a company to help protect ships from pirates. I am pretty sure they would be full of tough mothers who would like nothing better than a chance to knock a pirate boat out of the water.

So as exciting as it may seem, only the most nervous among us are fretting about this. But overly cautious, as always, the captain is having a Safe Harbor drill in two minutes. That will show us all where to go so we can't get hit should bullets start flying. I'm guessing that will make a few more people concerned, but the realists aboard realize that - even if some scoundrels are lurking out there as we pass through - there are slower, lower ships with less security and fewer people to fight them.

We're feeling quite secure.

Friday, April 23, 2010

At Sea: The Ladies

We have now been on this ship two weeks. Having left Dubai, it will be more than a week before we dock again. As the cruise director said on the PA system this morning, "We will all get to know each very well."

Actually, he's about 10 days too late with that observation, at least for the group I will call The Ladies.

These are the women, mostly Australians, who have more or less formed a social corner on the pool deck and every morning, noon and night at least a couple of them can be found sitting there chatting with the others. Oh, some men sit around with them. This isn't the laundry room, after all. But the men know their place. They sit, listen, hear themselves occasionally talked about as if they weren't present and then wander off so The Ladies can talk about them in even more detail.

You would be wrong, however, to think that The Ladies are picking on the men when they chat about them. Oh no. These women are more than willing to tell some of the deepest secrets of their lives to people who were perfect strangers when this month began. We know whose ex-husband suddenly proclaimed himself gay, who is being treated for depression, who had a baby in her early teens, who got canned from a job. And for just about all of them, we have a fairly well detailed medical history.

This is the reason, of course, why the men aren't taking much part in this chat fest. For example, if a guy is suffering from diarrhea, his natural tendency is to keep it to himself. Even when we're fat, wrinkled and past 60, we still don't want women wondering if we have skid marks in our daks. But to The Ladies, this is just another topic in which everyone gets their chance to talk about their own personal experience, offer suggestions on how to deal with it, and in the case of a couple, tell a few funny stories about it.

Here's another example. If one of my kids has done something less than wonderful, I tend to think it's best left within the family. The Ladies, of course, will tell you which unmarried kid is pregnant by a no-good, which one can't get a job and is on the dole, which one is in therapy, which one is falling in love with a boy from Brazil. I still don't know why that's a problem, but I have learned that Don't Ask Don't Tell works perfectly fine when sitting with The Ladies.

What concerns me most is that this massive information exchange has happened in the part of the cruise where we were stopping at various ports. What in the world are they going to talk about during the next 8 days when there is nothing to do but sit around and talk? LK insists she doesn't share many intimate details with the group and that the group hasn't really noticed that she's hearing much more than she's saying.

But I have two large worries about the coming days. First, at what point is LK going to have to ante up to The Ladies bar? I will know it has happened on the day one of The Ladies asks me how I'm doing with my diarrhea.

The second worry is even more serious. What if I am so bored that I start talking about it and tell a few funny personal stories?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Scooby Dubai Do

Dubai is a remarkable city built in the desert. Fourteen years ago most of this place was sand. Today it has a skyline that looks partly like it was designed by the graduate architectural students completing their theses and partly as if it was built by kids who ran out of Legos.

It is famous for its excesses. It boasts the world's tallest building (the Burj Dubai - a picture LK took from our balcony), the world's only 7-star hotel, the world's biggest water fountain show, the world's biggest gold ring. I believe it also is in the running for the world's biggest inability to pay its debts.

It also boasts an indoor ski slope (which even functions in the summer when the summer temperatures soar to 120F). This competes, apparently, with the ice skating rink in the Hyatt Regency.

And best of all for the residents of this Arab state, there are no taxes. As in zip.

Ring a bell? A city created in the desert for no other reason than because somebody decided to do it, figuring it would make them a lot of money. Huge buildings of fanciful shapes tower above you. There is a massive emphasis on having Guinness-level features and attractions. And an almost religious fervor in trying to bring to the parched, scorched earth things having no place in the desert.

As LK pointed out - it's Las Vegas without the neon lights. I should add "and without the showgirls, gambling, free drinks at blackjack and 99-cent all-you-can-eat breakfast."

That said, Dubai is still an interesting place, struggling to convince itself and the world that it's having heaps of fun, in spite of its Muslim roots and the shock impact of the global financial crisis.

So what do you do if you've built mini-Vegas but don't have the casinos? No worries - Dubai pitches itself as the shopping capital of the world.

It is famous for its spice market, where just about every aromatic thing ever grown is available. LK was dazzled by the profusion of saffron.

But let me be frank about Dubai shopping. Spices aren't going to put any place on the map (OK, except for the Spice Islands). No, Dubai is famous for its emphasis on gold. They have a marketplace - souk in Arabic - that was the final stop in our tour today. LK had started out today's tour saying she had thought about it and decided she was not going to buy any gold here.

Given where we were, I thought I would reinforce that decision. Twice I said "I divorce you" to her, and warned that I would complete the ritual with a third declaration if her trip to the market threatened our nest egg. By the time we left the Gold Souk thirty minutes later, she had only melted one corner of the Visa card. (And to be honest, I encouraged her so she shouldn't bear the whole blame.) It's probably a sign of our new lifestyle that she did admit to me afterwards that she would have done a lot more damage a few more years ago when she was still working.

Being in a more-or-less traditional Muslim country does make you well aware that you're not in Kansas, or Sydney, anymore. Dubai is actually one of the more enlightened Arab Muslim states, permitting complete freedom to practice other religions and even allowing alcohol to be served in some licensed pubs and hotels. We even saw women - obviously European women - wearing bikinis at the beach near the Burj al Arab - the ultra-luxury hotel (in the picture) where, our tour guide assured us, even Brad and Angelina come with the kids.

Given that the ruler's grand scheme involved convincing major western companies to set up shop in Dubai, these concessions were perhaps inevitable. It is very hard to imagine a western money guy being willing to move to a place where there's no booze, no gambling and the only way you can check out the chicks is by looking at their eyes.

Despite its willingness to accommodate western ways, you still see a large number of women wearing the traditionail burqa, and the mosques' amplified calls to prayer fill the city air several times a day. And LK and I both recalled the couple who were jailed last year for kissing in public.

So in the end, I never had to say "I divorce you" a third time, but I didn't give her a kiss until we got back on the ship, either.

Sunday, April 18, 2010


I was thinking about yesterday's tour of Bombay this morning. OK, to be precise, I was in the loo and I was thinking that I should have gone a lot easier on that hot green sauce they served with the curries at lunch.

Somehow, though, that comes close to capturing my reaction to seeing this city for the first time. It was interesting at times, but left me feeling so ambivalent I don't know what an honest answer would be to the question of whether I enjoyed seeing the city. I guess, on the whole, seeing anything interesting is worthwhile. But enjoyable? Not so sure.

I had braced for lots and lots of people - and to be honest, lots and lots of very poor people. Bombay (now called Mumbai) is either the second or third most populous city in the world, depending on whose lists you look at. And the depth of poverty here is well known; you don't need to visit here to know all about that.

On a day where temperatures soared into the high 90s and the humidity was palpable, we spent about six hours on a tour checking out the highlights of the city.

And the lowlights. That was definitely the case on our last stop of the day when we visited the Thieves' Market, which sounds romantic but is actually depressing. Block after block is filled with shops that sell junk - and I mean junk, as in stuff we would throw out rather than use. Like the best mall, each shop seemed to specialize. While we may have Borders for books and Bath and Beyond for homeware, they had shops specializing in such things as rims for bicycle wheels or broken religious statues. What the market lacked, though, was a good anchor store - or perhaps it had one and I just didn't recognize it as such. It did, however, have dozens of goats wandering around - kind of a petting zoo for tomorrow night's dinner.

We also stopped by the Ghat - a massive area where men called dhobis wash and dry clothes. This is a traditional, inherited job in India - although watching them work made me think it was the sort of inheritance you give to a kid you really don't like because he looks so much like your next-door neighbor. The washermen do it the old-fashioned way making their own detergent and bleach and pounding the clothes on the rocks. The water they are working with starts fresh in the morning but is not replaced, and by the time we saw it it was grey, approaching black. Yet looking at the clothes hanging to dry, it is amazing how clean they are. The whites really are whiter than the ones you see on the TV ads.

LK, also known as The Launderer, was fascinated. Besides doing the hard yards with my XX-sized wardrobe, she is fascinated with hanging laundry. We have pictures of clothes hanging from windows in seven or eight different countries. I think coming to this shrine of laundry in Bombay was pretty much the pilgrimage she needed to complete at least once in her life.

Mind you, it's not all drudge and drear. The city also has a large number of beautiful buildings and things to see. From Malabar Hill, the highest point, you can see the bay and far to the right the district nicknamed Manhattan because it is home to the financial companies. Well, you can kind of see because the haze in the air makes everything just this side of a shadow.

Driving down to this area, we saw the major tourist stops - the Gateway of India, built to commemorate 1911 cruise ship visitors King George V and Queen Mary. It is perfunctory that all modern cruise ship visitors must spend enough time to get their pictures taken in front of the arch, as well.

The Gateway is directly across the street from the Taj Mahal Hotel. Built in 1903, it is an eye-popping exercise in excess in a city where more than 10 million people live in shacks. It was impossible to look at it, though, without remembering the black smoke billowing out when the terrorists took it over and shot so many people. That memory took away any desire to pop inside for a coffee.

We did more, of course - visited a swimming pool/bath, a farmers market, the gardens planted atop the city reservoir, and our guide showed us several places we might wish to visit on our own today. But both of us feel we've seen what we want to here in Bombay, and we definitely have no desire to again struggle through the stifling heat and humidity. So it's a boat day. Next land - Tuesday in Dubai.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Cochin India

A fat man in a country full of thin people is king.

Apparently I haven't remembered the proverb correctly, so I was slightly disappointed not to get a more rousing reception when we got off the ship at Cochin yesterday. This port town on the southwest tip of the India is rich in history, but you are better off reading about it because there is precious little to see or do when tourists wander into town.

At least that's the report we received from fellow passengers who had failed to do their homework. I, of course, am traveling with the travel homework queen, the girl who always gets a star for her paper on our next destination. Aware of the limited attractions Cochin offers (2 churches, a synagogue and an old palace), LK chose to book us into a private tour that took us further afield from Cochin.

She used the Internet to arrange with a local tour company which sent a car to take us and our new friends Judy and Wally about 100 minutes up the road to what are called the backwaters at Alleppey (now called Alapuzzha). By the way, it was on this drive that I started to better understand the concept of yin and yang. The car was not all that big, and the other three were magnanimous in telling the fat guy that he should sit in the front seat. (I am thinking the best of them. I am sure none of them were thinking, "Oh God, we'll be crushed if he's one of the three in the back seat!")

So the comfortable, close-to-the-air-conditioner front seat was a very nice benefit for being, shall we say, large. The downside, I soon discovered was that Indian traffic rivals Shanghai in the morning, Rome at noon and Boston all day. It took more than an hour before I stopped pushing my foot to the brake that wasn't on my side as cars, motorcycle, buses, trucks and tuktuks all took turns getting in our lane and coming straight at us. In the end, I started to see a certain pattern and rhythm to it - kind of like an organized game of chicken - and relaxed. Until the bus forced us onto the side of the road with a bicyclist just in front of us.

Anyhow, unlike airlines Indian traffic ignores near-misses and we all happily got out at the backwaters to begin the heart of our day. We boarded a houseboat for a cruise down the river and around Lake Arjun, with a chef on board cooking lunch for us. Afterward, we stopped to see some local sites - a temple, a 400+ year-old Catholic church, and a stroll along a private beach to let us dip our toes in the Indian Ocean.

Sounds luxurious, doesn't it? A private car, a houseboat all to ourselves, a chef cooking lunch just for the four of us. Well, it was luxurious. (Unless you count the plank you have to walk to get on and off the boat. And, yes, it is a shame no one made a video of me doing it).

But luxury is quite affordable in India. In fact, it was unbelievably cheap - only 60 Aussie dollars per person for the whole 8-hour expedition.

It may have seemed like an odd idea to get off the ship after four days and choose to get on a boat and cruise around a lake, but it was a very different type of experience and the four of us had a great time. The day was very hot - mid 90s - but it was cool on the lake, especially when we headed home with the breeze in our face. The waters were shallow and muddy, with lots of water plants dotting the surface. We saw all sorts of waterbirds fishing for their lunch, a team of men diving to put nets down, many women washing their clothes by slamming them against the rocks along the riverbank.

And the food was divine. The man who cooked it didn't speak English, so I can't tell you everything we ate, but there were small fried fish from the lake (about the size of your hand) with onions, a red chicken curry that was mildly spiced and very tasty, nan, rice and four bowls of stuff that was really good but we don't know what they're called. Our favorite had finely chopped peppers, turmeric, nigella seeds, desiccated coconut and other stuff apparently fried in coconut oil. Everything tasted so good that we decided we could handle not knowing what we were eating, but it's easy to be brave that way about vegetables.

We were tired last night, and had more Indian food at the ship's buffet - nowhere near as tasty as our lunch. After dinner we felt lazy and decided an early night would be just the ticket. Altogether a fun day with lots of memories.

By the way, LK took some very nice pictures yesterday but it is impossible to load them to Shutterfly while we are at sea, so I will try to get them up in a day or two.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

In the Indian Ocean

As we slept last night, we sailed past Sri Lanka and are now nearing the southern tip of India. It was overcast for much of yesterday but cleared in late afternoon for a gorgeous sunset. Being in the middle of the ocean with no land in sight is disorienting, at least to this landlubber. With nothing but water to see until you cannot see any more, the edge of the world really does take shape. I can understand why people thought there was an edge to the world that you could fall off, because it certainly looks that way.

Last night we darkened the balcony off our room and were able to see the most magnificent sky - more stars than I can recall seeing in a very long time. It really is a shame how much of the sky we lose when the lights are turned on. I think kids growing up today in cities must be startled if they ever get to see the thousands of pinpricks of light in the night sky. As a bonus, far-away flashes of lighting lit up the sky around us as we were turning in.

Spending three days crossing the Indian Ocean has definitely shifted us into full-on relaxation mode. With little to do, we have even discovered the art of conversation. That, of course, is not always such a good thing.

For example, last night I suggested to LK that in those instances when we did not agree on what we wanted to do, we tended to mostly do whatever she wanted.

OK. I admit, it was more of a discussion than a conversation.

Nonetheless, she disagreed vigorously and said she almost always defers to me. This surprised me since I could not recall that happening since I was thin and had a full head of hair. And come to think of it, I don't think I had met her at that time.

"Oh, it's just that you do it in your own way," she said.

And what way is that, you might ask as I did.

"You get cranky if you don't want to do something."

This discussion/conversation/etc was pretty obviously evolving into one of those men-are-from-mars-women-are-from-venus discussions. You know, the kind no guy can possibly win. Like when we worked and I didn't want to talk about work once we got home and she did. So we did.

"So you're saying that I do things I don't want to do, and yet I am getting my way because I'm cranky? I would have thought - cranky or not - if we're doing things that I don't want to do but you do want to do, then you are getting your way."

My darling looked at me with complete exasperation on her face. It was a look that more or less said, "I love you so I am going to pretend that you're really that dumb!"

"Think about it," she said to drive her point home. "We have not driven to the mall in more than three years."

"And that proves?"

"That proves you're having your way, because you hate going to the mall."

"But we have gone every time you've wanted to go," I said. "You must have not mentioned going to the mall in the past three years if we haven't gone."

She sat up straight, a look of gotcha on her face. "And that's because every time we went, you were cranky. So you're getting your way."

I could write about the rest of the discussion/conversation, but you get the drift. For my part, I have come away with two clear ideas:

1) I believe anyone reading this will decide that either LK or I am being logical and sensible. I suspect that choice will have a lot to do with the presence or absence of a Y-chromosome.

2) I am certain that having 10 more days at sea on this cruise is going to be one of the more interesting periods of our marriage.

Monday, April 12, 2010


Oh my God, my fellow cruisers are accusing me of cheating.

At Scrabble.

And it isn't really even Scrabble, but some sort of anagram game played with Scrabble tiles.

And we aren't even keeping score.

But still they accused me of cheating.

And I am thinking, "This is only Day 4 of 24. This may turn out to be a very long voyage."

The problem comes from the fact that I played a lot of Scrabble on Facebook a few months ago, and that has a built-in dictionary. So suddenly people who can't spell their own middle name are using words like "cwm" and "qoph". Which is OK, but it does force you to start learning all the arcane words, especially those with J or Q.

Regrettably, an English couple at the table challenged me on words that don't quite fit into the arcane category. Like "ziti".

"It's a kind of pasta," I said, and checked myself before adding, "and a pretty common one for people who eat more than lamb curries and boiled beef."

"It's a kind of what?" the man responded. And I knew I was in for a lengthy explanation if he didn't even know what pasta is. But then he and I both realized that I was pronouncing it like "POSS - TA" - you know, the way the Italians do. And he pronounces it "PAST - TA" - you know, the way the Poms do.

Once we cleared that up, though, the Yank woman piped in challenging the spelling. She was pretty sure there were two Ts in "ziti". I wanted to tell her that there was only one T, much as in the word "stupid".

LK joined the chorus and assured them that I was right. I was proud of her for being brave and defending me. Of course, I was aware that it is easy when you're defending someone who is correct.

As fate would have it, I used the word "aero" on the next round. Yankee Woman couldn't wait to tell me how stupid I was. "That's a prefix, not a word."

"You're partly right," I said. "It is a prefix, but it is also a stand-alone word. Or at least it is in the Scrabble Dictionary."

I had assumed that I would easily win the day by dropping the Scrabble Dictionary bomb. Surely the table would go, "Oh, this guy actually knows what words are in the Scrabble Dictionary. Maybe he's right."

I was wrong. She smiled the tight little smile of a former schoolmarm who has caught a kid peeking at another kid's test paper. "Well, when I get back to my room I am going to google that," she said. Which is, of course, the equivalent of calling me a cheat.

So I smiled politely and suggested that when she get back to her room, she should also google "cwm", "qoph", "qaid" and "qi". No way I was losing the superiority sweepstakes to this witch.

I should have added "wadi" because when I played that on the next round I could see everyone looking at me with great skepticism.

I guess I was so much the focus of their judgments that no one bothered to notice that other people at the table were putting down words like "dias", "quel" and "zink".

Didn't matter, of course, because we were playing for fun. Or perhaps I should say LK and I were playing for fun. I think the British couple were playing for Queen and Country. And Yankee Woman was there to make the world safe for correct spelling.

Oh, and by the way, I checked on "aero" when I got back, too. Very relieved to see I was correct.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Phuket. Kind of.

It's very hot here in Thailand today, and we're at Phuket - which we have visited before. By the way, it's pronounced POO - KET, and not the R-rated version most of the Americans will have assumed.

This is really an R&R spot with beaches during the day and bars at night (so maybe that makes it a B&B spot instead). While the island is pretty, it's not pretty enough to check it out again in 95 degree weather (about 35C for the metric crowd). And looking at the rows of souvenir stands set up outside the ship hasn't made either of us re-think our decision to have a lazy day aboard.

LK's doing whatever they do at the thalasso pool, and I am here watching my Macbook Air refuse to boot, confirming my worst fear that it is in serious trouble and I am a gazillion miles away from being able to get it fixed.

Oh well, LK is poolside so I can use her Macbook Pro and read e-books and listen to the iPod on the mini-speakers we always bring along with us. And with plenty of time on my hands, I have experimented a bit further to figure out how to do videos.

So, with not much else to say - except that I know only about a billion people have also done the parody - here it is:

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Between Singapore and Phuket

So here we are all at sea, working our way from Singapore to Thailand.

This used to be the most notorious part of the world for pirates, but they're out of fashion here now. Apparently the tsunami wiped out about 80% of the pirate fleet and the combined governments of Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia made quick work of the "lucky" ones who didn't get wiped out by Mother Nature. But don't worry, later on we're sailing into the area that is the new reigning champ of piracy. But I will write about that as we get closer. (And I did mean don't worry. The security in place makes American airports look easy - from the bad guys' perspective.)

Because this cruise is 24 days, we came aboard with some fairly firm resolutions about what we needed to do. First, we weren't going to drink too much. Second, we weren't going to eat too much. Third, we weren't going to go to the casino. Fourth - and this was just my personal one - I was going to re-start my exercise regimen which has gone by the wayside since we became homeless.

Now, I know there are those among you who are raising your eyes in incredulity wondering how long these resolutions can possibly last given my nature (and frankly, my darling's nature as well). Well I am pleased to report to those cynics that 24 hours after boarding the ship we haven't even begun to consider actually living up to our resolutions yet. But I still have 23 days before I begin to feel guilty about it.

It's just too hard not to have fun here on the ship. We keep running into old friends and how are you not going to have a drink with them? Well, OK, they won't be old friends until we've known them a bit longer, but really I can see that they are going to become old friends in no time at all.

The food is too easy to enjoy, although we haven't really overindulged yet. For one thing we both realized that they took all their supplies aboard in Singapore, so we've decided that the first week is the time to eat the salads and other things that might start looking a bit past the use-by date in a couple of weeks.

As for the casino, well, we won a little bit last night, so doesn't that justify ignoring our resolution? I'm pretty sure it does.

But we have been serious about addressing the length of this cruise and the large number of days at sea. There are some things we have decided to do on the ship that we haven't done on our cruises before.

LK has already bought a cruise-long pass to the pool at the Astral Thalasso Spa. (I think thalasso is a Greek word meaning "extract extra money from tourists") I may even buy her a spa gift or two. I know she has always been interested in one of those massages they do with hot rocks. Might get that as a gift for her. I see that the Elemis Aroma Stone Therapy is 75-minutes long and costs $195. Apparently they heat the rocks, pour scent on them and bung them on your bare skin at the rate of $2.60 a minute.

Or perhaps, looking through the brochure, there may be some others that appeal to her.

I could save $70 off the hot rocks and give her the Elemis Body Sculpting Cellulite and Colon Therapy. That lasts 75 minutes, too, so she won't get shortchanged on the time. It sounds pretty comprehensive, too. The brochure says, " A detoxifying body mask is combined with specialized drainage massage techniques to break down fatty deposits, cleans the digestive system, eliminate toxins and improve texture of the skin." Actually, I'm thinking that might be good for me. Don't know if they have a body mask big enough for me, but I would love to see if one of those pert blondes at the spa was in the mood to give me the specialized drainage massage. And believe you me, they would find out what it means to eliminate toxins.

I suppose if I give LK the Body Sculpting Cellulite and Colon Therapy, I should also ante up the extra cash and throw in the Ionithermie Cheek Lift Treatment. As the brochure says, "This acclaimed treatment will help to your buttocks a lift, while firming and toning the skin." Ah, the Perfect Woman - with beautifully toned butt skin and a squeaky clean digestive system. How could you not fall in love?

Oh well, plenty of time left for LK to take advantage of these wonderful treatments. For tonight, we've come back from a brief afternoon play in the Luxe Casino and are having cocktails in the room listening to Joe Jackson before heading out to dinner in two hours at the Aqualina Specialty Restaurant. I promise not to eat or drink too much. And I guarantee we won't even think of going to the casino afterwards.

Well, you'd better consider that an intention rather than a promise.

Friday, April 9, 2010


We have finally finished living out of our car - and I thought this picture from the final day was telling. On an overcast and drizzly morning, LK found herself having to sort dirty clothes in the boot of the car prior to leaving them at a laundry. (I use "boot" deliberately because I know how Americans think it's cute to use terms like that, whereas Aussies don't think it's cute to use terms like "trunk".)

That my sweetie was reduced to sorting clothes in a public parking lot is a bit of a long story, but suffice it to say that neither of us - and probably no one who knows us - ever anticipated this day coming in less than a year of LK retiring.

Of course, it is all her fault, although "fault" is not really the right word. But it was LK who decided we should put the house up for sale late last year, knowing full well that the house in Hobart had tenants with a lease until the end of July.

Anyhow, Phase 3 of our homeless wanderings is beginning today. Phase 1 was the fly-drive holiday we had with Jaki and Robert and the next phase was our Tassie/Victoria exploration, which Shirley joined us for in the final two weeks.

We have caught up with family and friends, taken care of banking and financial business and thanked Shirley for putting us up and putting up with us. And today we are getting back to essentials.

Almost a year ago, Linda took advantage of what was then looking like a long-term Global Financial Crisis. Cruise lines were having bad dreams about ships less than half-full, and airlines were bracing for the near-death of business travel. So she did what retired people do best. She hunted for bargains and found some spectacular ones.

We are starting a cruise today from Singapore aboard the Azamara Quest. And we got it at a ridiculously low rate last year that I am betting will never again be offered. It's a re-positioning cruise, which means they have to shift the ship from the South Pacific where the cruise season is ending and into the Mediterranean for the beginning of the cruise season there. There will be lots of days at sea with no port stops, but it will all seem a treat not having to pack and re-pack the car every day or two.

And we do get to put a couple more little dots of places we've visited on the global map.

The cruise starts here in Singapore. We flew up last night on Qantas using frequent flyer points. I recalled that Jaki and Robert had not been offered drinks when they flew from California, so I made sure that I balanced things out lest Qantas start to make even more outrageous profits.

We stayed the night in the Intercontinental using frequent sleeper points - or whatever hotels call them. The Intercontinental is especially nice because I have retained the status that gets us an upgraded room, a gift (a pashmina shawl for LK) and a late check-out, which is especially nice since the ship doesn't board until mid-afternoon. It's especially satisfying knowing it's free this time around.

So in a few hours the concierge will send someone up to help us with our luggage. Then when we get to the ship, the room steward will help us get set up and tonight the good bartenders who will be serving us for the next three weeks will memorize "Bombay martini, dry with extra olives, and Johnny Walker Black and soda with lots of ice."

I am guessing by the time we get to Athens, the boot of the car will be a very distant memory.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010


I;m getting pretty annoyed at the techno=disaster that keeps befalling me.

Oh, pardon me. That last sentence was meant to have an apostrophe and a hyphen in it, but they just aren;t where they;re supposed to be on this computer and I can either leave the semi=colons (and equal signs) in or take an extra hour to type this post.

Or I could stop using contractions, I suppose, as well as hyphenated words. I am not sure I can do that. Oh damn, now what have I done that turned on the italics?

This whole mess is because my Macbook Air woke up yesterday morning and decided it couldn;t remember how to recognize the USB Ethernet modem it has happily used for 7+ weeks since we became homeless vagabonds.

I tried the AG routine that solves most technology problems several times. I shut it off, turned it on again, removed the usb modem, even tested it on another Mac to discover it was still working, uninstalled and reinstalled the software that drove the device, slammed my hand against the screen, then the keyboard, shook the laptop, shut it off for a very long nap and tried it hours later, read everything I could at Apple;s support web site and found nothing like this problem. Gave up.

So out of the bag of things we weren;t going to take with us this trip came the Dell mini netbook. It;s a $500 laptop = if your lap is the size of Barbie doll;s. And in order to handle the incredibly scrunched up size, the geniuses at Dell have moved some of the keys on the keyboard. Like the ' and the -

It;s also got a really really really tiny screen. So tiny, in fact, that I can barely see what cards I have when playing online poker. Funny enough, I have been winning much more regularly with that problem, so don;t necessarily take that as a complaint.

But the real downer about all this is that I took a super great picture today on my new phone (replacing the other one which won;t quite die, but cannot quite do what it needs to, either. I wanted to post that picture on this blog, but I could not figure out how to do it.

That is because Microsoft makes even more annoying products than Apple, apprently. At least with the Macbook, when I wanted to transfer a mobile phone picture via Bluetooth, all I had to do was tell the Mac to get a picture off my phone. Never even had to use the manual to figure that out.

With Windows, I couldn;t even figure out how to turn Bluetooth on so the PC could discover there was a phone inches away from it.

So I resorted to the phone;s hard=wire solution. Only Windows couldn;t figure out how to make the phone work with the PC = something Apple machines seem to solve automatically.

So consider this my crabby, technology=annoys=me post.
Oh, and by the way, I am apologising in advance for any typos and misspellings but I can barely read the words on the screen and I am not going to risk blindness by going back to check for errors.

We won;t need the USB modems once we start our trip tomorrow so I can stop trying to post using this Dell. Which is good, because it;s only a matter of moments before I throw it out the window.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Long Weekend

You haven't blogged in ages, my bride complained last night. Well, actually I haven't blogged since Thursday, which means I have taken the long Easter weekend holiday off much the same as most Aussies.

We have a wonderful tradition here that we make Easter a four-day weekend, even though very few people actually do it for religious reasons. Good Friday is the country's major shut-down day and very few things are open. (Last year I posted about it here.)

The real trick to this holiday thing, though, was applying the Christmas tradition to Easter -- namely, not only taking off the day itself but declaring the next day a holiday as well. So December 26 and Easter Monday are national holidays, despite the fact that their religious significance falls somewhere in the realm of "We were enjoying our day off so much, we wanted another day."

We spent Good Friday in Canberra with Jason and Laura and then had a farewell lunch at a lovely Thai restaurant on Saturday. I should add right now that I learned an invaluable lesson: a big Thai lunch is not the best preparation for a 3 1/2-hour drive, but then I suspect most people already knew that.

I had done the good Easter Bunny thing in Canberra and snuck into a shop to buy a bunch of little chocolate eggs to put on LK and Shirley's pillows Saturday night. I wanted to surprise them, so I kept them in my pocket. That was lesson #2: little chocolate, foil-covered eggs that sit in your pccket for more than 4 hours become one mis-shapen, foil-specked chocolate blob. I can only hope that the thought counts.

Easter Sunday was the highlight of the weekend, when we got to see Lily after more than a month without a Lily-fix. This one was critical, because it will be early August before we see her again.

She is growing so tall, and at 7 3/4-years-old, she has developed a great sense of story-telling and humor. She is also incredibly active and fearless, not thinking twice about walking on stone walls and jumping around.

You can tell her age in that picture at the top. She has a scratch over her eye and her front teeth haven't quite finished growing in. I am saving that picture because when she is a famous celebrity I should be able to sell it to whatever web sites are around then.

Easter Monday's big event was spending a couple of hours moving our remaining storage stuff into a smaller bin and sorting out the stuff we will need to take with us as we go globe-trotting once again. Not very exciting, but since we leave on Thursday it had to be done.

Today I had set aside the late morning (here) to watch Syracuse play for the basketball championship. Since they got eliminated many games ago, the game will not be so important. Tonight and tomorrow, dinner and lunches with family and friends before we head out. Then farewell to Shirley, who I suspect is planning a party for Thursday night!

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Mornington Peninsula

Our road trip is ending. Yesterday was the last wander-around day and this morning we begin the drive back up the Hume Highway toward Sydney. We will stop in Albury tonight and Canberra on Good Friday and back to Shirley's Saturday night so the Easter Bunny will know where to put our eggs.

We then have a couple of days in Sydney to take care of some errands before jumping on a plane to Singapore where we pick up a cruise ship that will take 24 days to work its way to Athens.

It's a good thing this trip is ending. We started out so well, basically living out of one suitcase and mastering the unloading/reloading of the car with military precision. But slowly - inevitably - old habits come to the fore.

LK, so conscious of space at the beginning of the trip, eventually ended up buying quilts, baskets, and now breaks away from us whenever a gift shop looks interesting. I sample wine and cannot resist buying a couple of bottles even though my wine fridges are sitting in storage in Glenorchy Tasmania. If we were to live out of the back of our car much longer, in order to fit everything in I think we would seriously have to consider tying Shirley to the roof.

Our two days on the Mornington Peninsula were fabulous. The weather was bright sun and warm in the afternoon and cool and clear for sleeping at night. The first day we drove down to Sorrento and had a pretty good wander in this pretty town by the sea.

Then yesterday we drove to the eastern side of the peninsula for a picnic at Point Leo. The picnic was LK's idea after we went online and looked at the menus for the wineries' bistros and decided they all looked like stuff we had had many times before on this trip and that they were priced way too high. Of course, by the time we bought the fresh bread, gourmet olives, rabbit and prune terrine and several very expensive cheeses, we ended up spending more than we would have at a restaurant.

But it was fun to do the picnic sitting by the sea. "This is camping," Linda proclaimed. And for Linda it was, of course, but every time she decides we are doing the equivalent of camping on this trip (usually when we check into one more place), I am reminded of William Randolph Hearst putting catsup bottles on the dining table at his mansion, San Simeon. He, too, had decided you could go camping without actually having to put up a tent or sleep in a bag or worry about that rustling noise in the night.

After the picnic we visited a winery known as The Cups. They had some fantastic pinot noir, and it was impossible not to take some back with us. I kept it down to two bottles because Shirley is already nervously looking at those bungee cords I put in the back seat.

Then last night we had Russian Night, a celebration my brother Bob first taught me. The problem with White Russians, of course, is that they taste like milk shakes and it's only after the fact that you realize there was a shot and a half of booze in each glass. Oh well, none of us really wanted dinner last night, anyhow. Not after that lovely picnic lunch.

The forecast is for good weather the rest of the weekend, and with luck some of the Easter traffic will have already gone ahead by the time we hit the highway. On to Albury,